OPINION: The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the poorest and most inaccessible countries in the world.
It's the size of France, but it has only 4 1/2 million people. It is a serious contender for the title of Worst Governed Country in Africa, and it is teetering on the brink of a genocide. Something has to be done, and only France was able and willing to do it.
France moves fast. There are already 600 French troops in the capital, Bangui, and another thousand will be moving out into country areas by the end of the week. (There are already 2500 African peacekeeping troops in the CAR, but they lack transport and don't have orders to shoot.) It has all happened so fast that France hasn't even decided yet if it supports the man who currently claims to be the president of the CAR. Asked last Saturday if Michel Djotodia, who seized power last March, should stay as "interim president", French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "I don't think we need [to create] more difficulties by adding the departure of the president."
On Sunday, however, French President Francois Hollande said exactly the opposite: "We cannot leave in place a president who was not able to do anything, or even worse, has let [some very bad] things happen." Fabius and Hollande may simply not have had time yet to talk to each other about Djotodia's future - and besides, it doesn't much matter: he controls virtually nothing.
The CAR has had eight coups since it got its independence from France in 1960, and got eight bad leaders out of it. The worst was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself emperor of the "Central African Empire" and used his "Imperial Guard" to murder people, including schoolchildren, who defied his rule, but even he had little impact on life outside Bangui.
The vast majority of people in the CAR are herdsmen or subsistence farmers who have little or no contact with the institutions of the state: the coup leaders and "presidents" came and went almost unnoticed. Until this time, because Michel Djotodia is the first Muslim president in a mostly Christian country, and he was brought to power by Muslim fighters, many of whom don't even come from the CAR.
Djotodia has been trying to seize the presidency for eight years. Coming from the Muslim northeast of the country, he recruited some fighters from that area - but up to 80 per cent of the soldiers in his Seleka (alliance) militia were Muslim mercenaries whom he hired from Chad and Sudan.
Except that he didn't actually have the money to pay them; he just tacitly offered them the chance to loot if they won. So when he ordered Seleka to disband last March, having fought his way into power in Bangui, they did nothing of the sort. They hadn't come all this way just to steal a few things and go home again.
Like Djotodia, the mercenaries are in the game to get rich, but while he can now do his thieving from the presidential palace, they still have to do it in the traditional way. So the majority of Seleka's fighters have broken up into bands of marauders who plunder, rape and burn their way around the country. Many of the country's villages now lie abandoned, while their former inhabitants hide from the bandits in the fields or the woods.
Tens of thousands may have already died in the more remote parts of the CAR, and at least four hundred were killed right in Bangui last week. Worse may follow: there is now a serious risk of genocide.
The Christian majority and the Muslim minority in the CAR have generally lived alongside each other in peace. However, the ex- Seleka mercenaries, being Muslims, tend to spare Muslim communities and target Christian ones. In self-defence, the Christians have begun banding together in vigilante groups - and there are a lot more Christians than Muslims.
Inevitably, they suspect the local Muslims of helping the ex- Seleka killers, so they are starting to see them as enemies as well. In the circumstances of extreme deprivation and fear that now prevail in country areas - at least a million people are living in severe hunger or actual famine - this could quickly slide into a genocidal level of killing.
That's why France moved so fast. It got the approval of the United Nations Security Council and the African Union for the intervention last Thursday, and by Saturday it had troops on the ground in Bangui. Djotodia, who could not be found last week, has also belatedly endorsed the intervention.
The need for speed is still paramount, and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said that the job of disarming the ex- Seleka fighters got under way on Monday: "First we'll ask nicely and if they don't react, we'll do it by force."
This is the second time this year that French troops have been sent in to stop an African state from collapsing into slaughter and anarchy. (The French intervention in Mali in January saved that country from conquest by jihadis.)
It is deeply embarrassing for the African Union to admit that its own peacekeeping force cannot do the job in time, but it hasn't let its pride get in the way of preventing a genocide in the CAR.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
- The Southland Times